Friday, 30 November 2012

José Saramago Month: The Wrap-Up Post

If I read another José Saramago book I’ll go crazy.

Just kidding. I’ve been enjoying it a lot, but it’s time to wrap up the José Saramago Month and move on to other readings.

Unless memory fails me, I had the idea for this event back in August, when I was reading Saramago’s diaries, and it suddenly dawned upon me that if he were alive he’d celebrate his 90th birthday this year. As a fan I couldn’t let the date pass unnoticed.

My intention to mark the occasion with some readings, however, turned into a month-long event that took proportions I didn’t foresee and demanded more energy and time than I expected. As November approached I had a handful of drafts nearly finished, and lots of notes dispersed throughout the margins of books that I had to hastily convert into coherent and intelligible blog posts. I had no idea I was going to end up writing nineteen posts for this. In some cases I had just finished reading the book days before I published a post about it. As such some posts feel more rushed than others.

I’ve been blogging for less than a year and this was the first time I hosted an event in my blog, and this experience taught me a lot. It taught me that having good planning and a posting schedule are essential, two things I didn’t have. At first I struggled with structure but in the end I think I did a good job with it. I tried to divide the month in four themes: his biography; his diaries; a sampling of his translated fiction; and finally a sampling of his untranslated work. I also learned that I should make sure I have enough material to fill out a whole month’s worth of posts. Sadly due to some miscalculations on my part, some books I ordered didn’t arrive on time. That’s the reason I paid so scarce attention to Saramago’s poetry and this final week was so poor in posts. I still plan to write about his poetry next year. Another thing I learned is that reading with a purpose can be beneficial. Although organising this event was intimidating, it also forced me to finally read some books I kept postponing. And everything I read helped me discover something new about Saramago, fill many gaps in my understanding of his worldview, connect many pieces between his novels and life, and get a generally more substantial picture of the man behind the words. So dear reader, if you think I’ve been teaching you anything about José Saramago, believe me when I say that I was the one humbly learning.

I didn’t have a structure for this, but early on I realized, I thought anyway, that it would be a more valuable use of my time and energy, and more interesting for the reader, if I focused on the wealth of books that haven’t yet been translated into English. For that reason I didn’t dwell on reviews of his prose fiction; the reader can easily find blogs that do that better than mine. What I believed I could bring of new to the table was some commentary on his plays, his poetry, his newspaper writings, his political articles, and his diaries. I hope this met the expectations the reader had about a José Saramago Month.

I have motives to think this was a successful event. Visits to the blog increased during this month, and I’m thrilled to discover that José Saramago has so many fans out there. The biography was one of the most popular posts of the month, which to means there are many people interested not just in the writer but also in knowing more about the man. Saramago, who didn’t believe in separating writer from man, would be the first to say knowing his life is essential to understanding his literature. However I think it’s amusing that the most popular post of the month was 1995: Only Mediocre Writers Are Translated. Why, I do not know.

I started this as a personal project, a labour of love, and I didn’t expect anyone else to join me. Even so, once more I have to thank Brian Joseph from Babbling Books for having joined me with his lovely review of The Stone Raft. I also thank everyone who followed this event and left a comment on the blog this month.

The José Saramago Month is officially over. I’m very happy with the results. Above all I wanted to create a space to remember, honour and promote José Saramago, my favourite novelist, and I think I achieved that. I thank everyone who joined me in keeping his memory alive.

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

José Saramago's Science Fiction Epic Poem

I couldn’t let this event pass without writing about José Saramago’s poetry. Well, I could have of course; I could have organized it in many different ways and I could have left his poetry out since it’s a negligible part of his oeuvre. I don’t consider myself an expert on Saramago and if I feel somewhat confident to make analyses of his novels, it’s because I’ve read lots of them (re-read some even) and picked up some ideas and noticed some patterns along the way. But when it comes to his poetry I’m a nullity. Of his earlier poetry I know nothing in first hand, just what I read about it, some good and mostly bad (and from the author himself). I know for instance that of his first poems, written in the 1940s, Saramago preferred not to have them published, and that tacitly says a lot about what he thought of them. I know that his first book of poetry, Os Poemas Possíveis, according to his biography, didn’t set the world on fire with their quality and innovation. And I know Provavelmente Alegria was better received by the press and the writers of the time but didn’t necessarily signal the rise of a fresh new voice in the Portuguese literary landscape, which didn’t have room for more poets anyway.

But I have read O Ano de 1993 (The Year of 1993) and liked it. To recapitulate what I wrote before: on March 16, 1974 there was a failed coup to overthrow Marcello Caetano’s fascist regime. Portugal had been a dictatorship since 1926 and there had been several unsuccessful coups over the years. In March of 1974, however, few probably expected that just a month later, specifically April 24, another coup would finally overthrow fascism. Saramago was one of the many who saw his hopes of freedom crushed in March, and in order to dissolve his frustration, sadness and rage, he started writing a narrative poetic allegory about a future where mankind is ruled by machines.

Well, it’s not The Wasteland and Saramago isn’t showing fear in a handful of dust. Saramago was, I think I’ve stated it before, a fan of science fiction and horror, the book is interesting for how he manages to integrate common tropes of the genre with his own sensibility, his own words, to create his own science fiction epic poem.

The plot is really a cliché of science fiction: slowly the slaves and hunted humans develop a consciousness of their own servile state and organize a resistance that defeats the mechanical tyrants. And once more mankind is free to rebuild a utopia from the debris of civilization. It’s a violent, tender, serene and hopeful book. It’s a book about the high cost of freedom and why cost has to be made. It’s a poem that speaks of the regeneration of a dying world, of the rebirth of mankind, children, words, society, ideas, nature.

The poem obeys a rigid style: it’s written in declarative sentences, without commas or any other punctuation marks. It’s divided in thirty chapters. Each stanza can go from several lines of verse to just one. The verses have a sing-song tone to it, a cadence that carries the reader throughout the narrative, told in a serene, tranquil voice in spite of the horrors described and the bizarre imagery, it’s like the voice of a weary man who has lived and seen too much to the point of sensorial numbness.

This is how the poem opens:

The people are seated in a Dali landscape with the shadows severely cut out because of a sun that we will call still

When the sun moves like it happens outside paintings the clarity is less and the light is far less aware of its place

It doesn’t matter that Dali was such a bad painter if he painted the image necessary for the days of 1993

(One day I will rediscover his quote about how he disliked surrealist paintings; as it is it’s in the back of my memory but I can’t pinpoint its source.)

The first people we meet in the poem are living in gutted buildings, in the dark, trembling with cold:

And they say last year’s winter was much sweeter or smoother or more benign although the word is old in 1993

While they speak and utter important things like this

One person is scratching enigmatic lines on the floor which can be either a portrait or a declaration of love or the word left to be invented

The reader at first doesn’t know who these people are. The poem isn’t clear with answers, it takes its time. The narrative slowly accumulates details and images. Later we read that

The inhabitants of the city sick with the plague are gathered in the great square which became known like this because all the others were clogged with ruins

People are ordered to stand in attention for no purpose. They live not for themselves but for absent rulers. Their existence knows only servitude and misery, taking orders and living in buildings where elevators no longer work. Their lives are carefully controlled, curfews exist, and those who break them are severely punished:

The interrogation of the man who left his home after the curfew hour started fifteen days ago and hasn’t ended yet

The inquirers ask a question every sixty minutes twenty-four each day and demand fifty-nine answers for each one

It’s a new method

They believe that it’s impossible that the true answer isn’t amongst the fifty-nine that were given

There are humans living outside the city they once lived in. Inside the city is inhabited by creatures metaphorically called wolves, who prey on men. Other humans live underground. There are humans allowed to remain in the city, and these are counted every night three times. They’re not allowed to keep their doors locked:

It’s important that the doors be permanently open in order not to waste the time of those keeping the census


The first count is made by rats the second by snakes the third by spiders

The inhabitants prefer the snakes and the rats in spite of the cold and scaly contact of the snakes and the fine scratching of the rats’ claws

But the spiders bring the greatest fear

A verse informs that ‘every night two or three inhabitants in the city go mad.’

Then the great uprising begins, the fire of rebellion starts burning in man’s spirit again, and a bloody war is fought, between mechanical eagles and elephants and hungry humans with sticks and spears. With the victory of mankind over its mechanical rulers, people rediscover the earth under their feet again, the world becomes fertile again to provide to the species with everything it needs, slavery is abolished and men learn to live off their own work and not the exploitation of others. The finale is written in a way of prophecy, and it may well be the most uplifting thing Saramago ever wrote, this may the most hopeful of his books, the hopes and dreams of a man who started writing this book when he still lived under a dictatorship and finished it during a democracy that, for a short while, allowed him to believe the world really could one day become his book’s paradise.

Next Friday, the end.

Monday, 26 November 2012

This is how values disintegrate: Elfriede Jelinek’s Wonderful, Wonderful Times

One night at the end of the fifties an assault is committed in the Vienna municipal park. The following persons all grab hold of one solitary man out walking: Rainer Maria Witkowski and his twin sister Anna Witkowski, Sophie Pachhofen (formerly von Pachhofen), and Hans Sepp. Rainer Maria Witkowski was named after Rainer Maria Rilke. All of them are about eighteen, Hans Sepp is a year or so older than the others, though he too is without a trace of maturity. Of the two girls, Anna is the more ferocious, which can be seen in the fact that she pays most attention to the face of the subject. Particular courage is required if you are to scratch a man’s face while he is looking full in your own (though he cannot see much since it is dark) or indeed try to scratch his eyes out. for the eyes are the mirror of the soul and ought to remain unscathed if at all possible. Otherwise people will suppose the soul is done for.
(Translated by Michael Hulse)

And so begins Elfriede Jelinek’s Wonderful, Wonderful Times, first published in 1980. This is the first time I read a novel by this Austrian author. I have Caroline and Lizzy to thank for, whose German Literature Month created the circumstances to finally give her a chance. The results were very rewarding, this writer already has a new fan. Haunted by my pleasureless recollections of Michael Haneke’s ponderous and humourless film adaptation of The Piano Teacher, I maintained reservations about Jelinek’s for many years. I now discover Jelinek is neither ponderous nor humourless; her writing is lucid, , vibrant, witty and grimly hilarious, even if she’s writing a nightmarish version of a post-war Austria unable (unwilling) to come to terms with the horrors and guilt of war crimes or impart its soulless youth with lessons extracted from the putrefying corpse of history.

The Holy Foursome, Rainer, Anna, Sophie, Hans, live in the abysm of human consciousness, husks that have filled their morbid and anti-social existences with the refuse of a world that has everything except morality: Rainer with lofty philosophy and poetry; Anna with hatred; Sophie with money; and Hans with greed. These protagonists are young but old enough to be living amongst the ‘innocent perpetrators’ of World War II with their ‘wartime memoirs, their souvenirs,’ to be living in an Austria recovering from the economic collapse of the war, and to be living in the shadow of the crimes of their ancestors, crimes which were never tried or expiated, but bottled up, sometimes fondly evoked, like in the case of Rainer and Anna’s father, an ex-SS officer.

The novel renders the quartet’s inner lives very well. Passages aren’t wasted on setting, the writer’s eye moves back and forth between their minds and a sardonic distance to comment on the absurdity produced within them:

Anna does not know that you cannot buy inner worth. The unfortunate drawback with inner worth is that it is hidden away where no one can see it. Anna wants things that are visible on the outside too, but she won’t admit as much. People should not be beaten up for reasons of hatred but for no reason at all, it should be an end in itself, admonishes her brother Rainer. All that counts is beating them up, whether I hate them or not (Anna). You haven’t understood a single thing, Rainer tells her in a superior tone.

Nor does Jelinek refrain from showing these young sociopaths’ moral deficit:

Sophie has to be properly motivated if she’s to commit a crime, or several crimes, because she herself does not believe she needs to make the effort. Nor is it nice to stay up at night perpetrating deeds that shun the light. It takes willpower, since you could just as well be in bed reading a suspenseful thriller.

Hans’ mother is a socialist and member of a union, and she wants her son to follow her steps. Her husband was murdered in the war, a political victim. His son doesn’t give a damn about his memory or her cause, he hates his social class and thinks only of climbing up, to be as rich as Sophie. He doesn’t have any patience for his mother’s sermons and lectures. He suffers from a war fatigue, a Holocaust fatigue, the values of the old generation mean nothing to him, the war horrors mean nothing, because “times have changed and people too. People have other things to worry about now. Particularly young people, to whom the future belongs, which after all they are helping to fashion.” If the future belongs to them, the future is doomed. This is one of the many ironies of the novel, contrary to what Hans thinks, people don’t change, they’re making the same mistakes, showing the same apathy and indifference, and the greater tragedy is that it’s probably an inevitable and unsolvable flaw in humans.

At school the twins lie about their lives, they pretend to be rich. Anna thinks her musical talent (which is debatable) and knowledge of classical music makes her deeper than her fatuous classmates who like pop music. Rainer seems himself as an intellectual and philosopher. “From time to time a genius will flourish in their midst. The soil that nourishes this genius will frequently be filth, and madness will mark the bounds. The genius will want to escape the filth at all costs, but will not always succeed in eluding the madness.” Rainer is such a genius, and even if his geniality can be put into question – he lives most of the time in the realm of Art, writing morbid poetry or love poems for Sophie, his muse - there’s no doubt that he hasn’t escaped the fate of madness: the novel concludes with a brutal, unexpected mass murder that consolidates Rainer’s goal to become a great man (perhaps; my only evidence is a reference to Crime and Punishment, inevitably reminding me of Raskolnikov’s theory that great men were beyond the law).

Their father, the old SS officer, still misses the war and is unrepentant about his atrocities:

It’s always terrific to smash down resistance, I smashed resistance quite often myself in the War and liquidated numerous persons all on my own. Nowadays I have this wretched leg to contend with, but back then the women couldn’t get enough of me, it was the magical attraction of the uniform that did it. That smart uniform. I remember how we were often up to the ankles of our riding-boots in blood in Polish villages.

Although he lost a leg, he was never tried or convicted. He works as a night porter (a nod to Liliana Cavani’s The Night Porter, an excellent movie about a retired Nazi criminal hiding as a night porter?), and his pastime is photography: he considers himself an artist, but he really just takes nude pictures of his embarrassed wife. His photographs of her are just a way of dominating her. He’s a tyrant and a bully who beats up his wife and kids from time to time. Rainer and Anna’s mother, Gretl, comes from a family of teachers and wants her children to have a sensitive and artistic education. The twins hate her. Herr Witkowski considers their education useless. “Nonetheless he keeps them at grammar school, so that he can go about saying they go to grammar school. This is how values disintegrate. You can clearly see it happening: the value of authority, the value of paternal rule.” If I hadn’t finished reading Broch’s The Sleepwalkers last week I wouldn’t have known that this is a reference to the in-novel essay “Disintegration of Values.”

The twins despise traditional authority because they’re out to create their own, and they don’t have role models to follow. Rainer craves authority too, the respect of his classmates – “he is a führer by nature as anyone can tell right away, but no one takes the trouble to look at him that closely” –, he wants to be a leader the quartet’s mentor. But he competes with Hans for the affections of Sophie. If Rainer is about the life of the mind, dreaming about a peaceful life as a state teacher that grants him the time to write (and how very Nietzschean that is), then Hans, the son of a union leader, represents ambition and greed. He hates his class and wants to achieve success by whatever means possible.

Although Jelinek aims her venomous pen at many targets, she always returns to Rainer and his devotion to literature and philosophy. Rainer is well read. He reads Musil, Sartre, Nietzsche, Camus. He wants to be like them, he considers himself an enlightened, superior to everyone else thanks to his powerful Will. He’s always returning to The Outsider for inspiration. With more reservations, Anna accompanies him in his readings. She even reads Georges Bataille, in French. Together they read books about how existence is valueless. In a cruel and ironic twist, it is their mother’s efforts to give them a classical education that leaves them so ill-prepared for life. Her philosophers are not their philosophers, her humanism is the civilizational debris on which their nihilism is built. That books can drive people crazy is a topic as old as Don Quixote, but I’ve never read such an incisive portrayal of the young pseudo-intellectual nihilist as Rainer Maria Witkowski. More, I’ve seldom seen a character built up to be so thoroughly demolished by the author’s sarcasm:

Apart from literature (which anyone who can speak is a master of, none more nor less than another, but which certain people have monopolised, people who can’t afford a superior method to elevate them out of their surroundings), Rainer has unfortunately not managed to conquer anything else yet. But literature is well able to meet Rainer’s demands.

Notice that it’s not Rainer who rises to literature’s demands, it’s literature that meets his. Jelinek never misses a chance to show Rainer’s egocentrism. I don’t think I’d have liked this novel so much without Rainer. Perhaps because, and this is a frightening thought, I see myself a lot in Rainer’s arrogance and pretentiousness; I think I was that person once, perhaps I still am a bit of that person, but I think I have enough self-scrutiny to realize it and laugh about it.

Wonderful, Wonderful Times is an excellent and thrilling novel about a group of people amputated from history, from life. Most of the characters are despicable human beings. There are no explanations for their vices. The Holy Foursome have good parents, or at least good mothers, they’re provided for, they’re loved, their education has been taken into consideration, they’re all intelligent, so nothing explains the barren desert of their inner lives. Nothing explains it save the fact that human nature is crooked by conception. Of course these four are extreme examples, but it remains a fact that people it takes little to make people into monsters, goodness and culture will always fight against man’s fascination with entropy and barbarism. And literature will always be here to record that timeless battle. At least something useful will come out of it.

Next Wednesday, José Saramago's science fantasy epic poem.

Friday, 23 November 2012

José Saramago and the play about Camões

- It’s a great, and common, truth that there isn’t a better memory than the one for names, titles, faces and the favours of the powerful. Thus it’s understood that you don’t know about Luís Vaz. A poet he is, the greatest there is in Portugal, and with no other means than his craft. Gentlemen, who, from amongst you, courtiers, religious men, couriers, chamber boys and everyone else present, knows Luís de Camões?

It’s 1570 and things aren’t looking good for Luís Vaz de Camões or Portugal. The King is a sixteen-year-old boy called D. Sebastião who hasn’t married yet and doesn’t seem interested in conceiving heirs, leaving the crown vulnerable to the machinations of his grandmother, D. Catarina of Austria, who wants to unite Portugal and Spain under a single kingdom (as it effectively happened for some eighty years, during the reign of the Filipes, after D. Sebastião stupidly got himself killed in North Africa). The Inquisition is in Portugal, arresting intellectuals and censoring books. The plague has killed fifty thousand already. So it’s a bad time for Camões to return from the Indies, all but broke and with plans of publishing an epic poem called The Lusiads. This is the basic setting of José Saramago’s 1980 play Que Farei com Este Livro? (What Shall I Do With This Book?), a question the poet asks himself as he desperately attempts to have the poem published.

Dozens of plays have been written about Luís de Camões, and not just in Portugal, but if one has a chance of surviving it’s Saramago’s compassionate but unglamorous depiction of the poet’s travails in Portugal. Saramago depicts with his typical sarcasm the bitter irony of Camões’ life: he was the greatest poet Portugal ever had, and yet he lived in poverty most of his life. Saramago paints a portrait of a royal court more interested in intrigues, favours and influence over the king than any admiration for culture or the arts. To this country Camões returns to Portugal, after seventeen years abroad, having failed to make his fortune in the fabled Indies.

The play contains many historical characters; some I already knew, mostly by name, others were extraordinary finds. One example is Diogo do Couto, whose real-life personality can’t be as fascinating as the substance gave to his fictional counterpart. Here’s how a courtier describes him:

Diogo do Couto is a passionate man who seems to have taken a vow to only utter what he thinks to be truths, even if they hurt the ears of whoever is close to him. Not that I have anything against the truth. The truth is the mark of a noble birth, only villains lie, and all Jews and Moors, but it’d be a vicious conversation the one that forgets, amongst people of good birth and clean blood, the conveniences of place and the interests of the occasion. Diogo do Couto doesn’t respect conveniences or obey interests.

An extraordinary character, Diogo do Couto was an historian and also the author of O Soldado Prático, apparently a searing critique of the Portuguese administration in its Indian colonies. “India will be, or I fear it already is, a disease of Portugal. God willing it’s not a deadly disease,” he declares in the play. I’ll have to read his book. In the play (and as historically documented) he has just returned from there, friend of Luís Vaz de Camões, whose poem he tries to help get published.

Another remarkable character is Camões’ mother, Ana de Sá, who has been waiting for him for seventeen years. Ana de Sá is a poor and one would say ignorant woman. Of course she’s also wise and frontal in the way Saramago’s wretched tend to be. Indeed, only Saramago would write about Luís de Camões and remember to include his mother, such a human, quotidian detail, so mundane, so insignificant, but it’s the heart of his vision of the great poet, who, his greatness notwithstanding, was no less flesh and blood than other men.

Back from India, Luís de Camões writes and rewrites his masterpiece while trying to get it published, a difficult ordeal given he has no money, having failed to make a fortune in the colonies. When Diogo do Couto meets him in Mozambique, the poet is begging and living off the alms of friends. His only fortune is the poem:

Ana de Sá: There he sits every day correcting, reading out loud. A lot of what he says I can’t understand, it’s all a prattle about gods and goddesses, names of unknown lands and seas, miracles, things never seen, who, in this Mouraria neighbourhood, would be capable of understanding the world like this?

Diogo do Couto: The world still has a lot to be seen and admired.

Ana de Sá: Some days ago I asked him to read me a clearer passage, that better arrived at my understanding, and he stood looking at me with a very grave look, and after scrambling around he read to me the lines of the old man who was at the sailing away of the ships to India. Do you remember?

Diogo de Couto: Like my own name.

The passage they allude to is the ending of Canto IV; I’ll post a short excerpt:

"O frantic thirst of honour and of fame,
The crowd's blind tribute, a fallacious name;
What stings, what plagues, what secret scourges curs'd,
Torment those bosoms where thy pride is nurs'd!
What dangers threaten, and what deaths destroy
The hapless youth, whom thy vain gleams decoy!
By thee, dire tyrant of the noble mind,
What dreadful woes are pour'd on human kind:
Kingdoms and empires in confusion hurl'd,
What streams of gore have drench'd the hapless world!
Thou dazzling meteor, vain as fleeting air,
What new-dread horror dost thou now prepare!
High sounds thy voice of India's pearly shore,
Of endless triumphs and of countless store:
Of other worlds so tower'd thy swelling boast,
Thy golden dreams when Paradise was lost,
When thy big promise steep'd the world in gore,
And simple innocence was known no more.
And say, has fame so dear, so dazzling charms? (1)

This is one of the most famous episodes of the poem: on the day Vasco da Gama’s ship is about to sail to uncharted seas in the hopes of finding a maritime way to India, a crowd is gathered at the Tejo river to send it off, and suddenly an old man starts prophesying that these explorations will bring no good to Portugal.

Luís de Camões, described by Diogo as a proud man, burns with impatience to have his poem published and to be finally recognized for the greatness he believes he possesses. And yet few recognize his value. The King has no interest in poetry. And the Count of Vidigueira, the grandson of Vasco da Gama, the explorer and seaman immortalized in The Lusiads, refuses to pay him for the poem claiming he doesn’t need him to write his ancestor’s life for him and that he didn’t commission the work. Another problem he has to circumvent is the Inquisition, which finds some ideas in the poem objectionable to the church’s doctrines.

“Portugal lacks a free spirit, it has a beaten spirit in excess. Portugal lacks joy, it has tears in excess. Portugal lacks tolerance, it has absolutism in excess.” These words, some of the best found in the play, are spoken by Damião de Góis. Historian, royal chronicler and philosopher, Góis was one of the fathers of Portuguese humanism and introducers of the Renaissance’s tendencies in the country, a man who travelled in Europe, met Luther and was a friend of Erasmus. Also a friend of Diogo do Couto and Camões, he tries to intervene in his favour in the royal court, only to be himself arrested by the Inquisition. (The play doesn’t explain, but he died in 1574, allegedly murdered) When Camões, after his book passes an examination, boldly declares to an inquisitor that Góis is an innocent man, he receives in reply, “Everyone’s guilty. It’s a matter of patience and searching.”

The play ends with Camões lacking the money to publish his book and basically offering his book for free to a publisher willing to print it. I don’t know if this truly happened. Camões had a horrible life, for sure, but not completely horrible. In 1572 the king did offer him a royal pension for services rendered in India; it was an amount that didn’t stop him from living in relative poverty until the end of his life, in 1580, when he died victim of the plague and thrown into a common grave. In the play at least he had the love of his mother, the love of his old flame, Francisca de Aragão, and the friendship of men like Diogo do Couto and Damião de Góis. The play isn’t just about the live of Camões, but, through his example, the lives of all Portuguese writers. A topic that was dear to Saramago was the difficulty of being a writer in Portugal, the material difficulty of selling and living as a writer, of making a career as a writer, of not having to extend the hand begging for alms and searching for patrons, in sum, the difficulty of being a truly independent writer in Portugal. In a speech given in 1982 he said, “I’ll begin by asking: is it possible and desirable to be a writer in Portugal? Is the society we are interested in the writers we have?” This isn’t a rhetorical question in a country that never esteemed the arts and culture very much and that actively despised intellectuals. José Saramago, who at the time of writing this play was far from being an international bestseller, was one of the few able to live comfortably from his work, but Camões was denied that in life and many good writers today continue to waste their time away from their true calling just to subsist and must continue to ‘cultivate the feeling of perpetual gratitude,’ to quote from the same speech, of having their books published and read by someone. Camões’ king didn’t have an ear for poetry, but things haven’t changed a lot. That too is a recurrent topic in Saramago: times passes, everything stays the same.

1) I use the translation by William Julius Mickle

Thursday, 22 November 2012

José Saramago's First Play

- What kind of language is that, what audacity? Where’s the fascism, where do you see fascism? There is no fascism! This is a newspaper, and an honourable newspaper.

In 1979 José Saramago wrote his first play, on order for a theatrical group. Saramago is, in my humble opinion, a very good playwright whose work the area of theatre has been overshadowed by his outstanding novels. But the themes of his novels are the themes of his plays: politics and religion, freedom, class struggle, the value of the individual in oppressive societies. One of the ideas the author kept insisting in after the restoration of democracy in 1974, was that very little had changed: the Portuguese people continued an anodyne and illiterate people; newspapers, now free, remained mute before the corruption and lies of the new parties; and the political class was swarming with neo-fascists who wanted the old regime back. Perhaps it’s because Saramago believed that fascism had never truly ended that he wrote the play as he did.

The play is called A Noite (The Night) and dramatizes the events inside a fascist newspaper newsroom on the night prior to the Carnation Revolution. Like other newspapers of its ilk, the newspaper didn’t have the purpose of informing but manipulating consciousnesses. Still reeling from the fear the botched March 16 coup caused, at one point the director tells to the editor in chief, “Tongues are too loose, that’s a fact, but for now it’s our policy to stop them, not cut them out. (…) More arrests are imminent, I’ve been informed of that, and our duty is to prepare public opinion. But with tact. With skill. Do you see?”

The play opens exactly with Valadares, the editor in chief, busy in his work of manipulating consciousnesses: censorship. One of the best aspects of the regime the play portrays is how censorship was enforced in newspapers. Valadares, a fascist sympathiser, is on the phone talking with the censorship bureau, going over the paragraphs of newspaper articles that have to be cut out. Even after having read a book about the topic, Portuguese censorship remains a process I don’t fully understand how it was carried out. Censorship was practised in two ways (three if we include self-censorship): book publishers, I think, had the choice of submitting the manuscript to the censor for examination before publication; or they could publish the book and wait for the authorities to confiscate them, if someone reported that the book contained something indecent or subversive. Of course it sometimes occurred that books passed the examination board, only to be seized afterwards (that’s why self-censorship was also a pointless endeavour; the writer could never know what the censor would find objectionable; he could let something pass, only for someone later to find something dangerous in the book). Newspapers, on the other hand, were more strictly controlled since they reached larger segments of the population, at least that’s my impression (since most Portuguese were extremely poor at the time, book buying was the luxury of a few); a newspaper couldn’t release a new issue without first making sure everything in it was in accordance to the rules. Valadares, then, is busily jotting down the numbered paragraphs that have to be cut out in order for the new issue to be approved.

Nothing exceptional is happening in the rest of the newsroom: journalists are dawdling about, chatting and listening to radio; the typographers are waiting for the texts to get the printing machines rolling; the director is writing a diatribe against intellectuals (a footnote informs it’s a real life article published in a fascist newspaper in reaction to an article Saramago had written when he worked for the Diário de Lisboa). It’s a normal evening, and then the first rumours of a military coup start to arrive. The director and Valadares frantically scramble whatever information they can acquire; the writing staff, mainly composed of fascist sympathisers, starts worrying about reprisals if it’s a leftist coup; the workers in the printing shop, because of their ties to the clandestine communist party, are kept in the dark. Only a journalist called Manuel Torres and an intern called Cláudia receive the rumours with hope.

Manuel Torres is a free-thinking journalist in charge of the news from the province (that means, in the mostly rural country that Portugal was at the time, any news from outside Lisbon), and Cláudia a young man disenchanted with journalism. In spite of his low status in the newspaper, Torres, a frank and confrontational man, is considered an intelligent and valuable worker by the editor in chief, who nevertheless can’t forgive his contempt for authority: Torres’ task is a sort of punishment, even though he’s considered the newspaper’s best journalist. But his political opinions make him unsuitable to cover, say, parliament news or foreign affairs. That’s left to his colleagues, a cadre of subservient hacks who despise Torres for his sarcasm. As the rumours intensify and the revolution becomes a fact, the conversations grow more animated in the newsroom, especially between and him Cláudia, who sees in him the journalist she’d like to be:

Cláudia (disappointed): We dream, we dream, and then reality is what we see, not what we dream. I arrived at journalism so happy! Sometimes I even laughed to myself. I thought I was going to write in the newspapers, and that people would read me, think about what I had thought…

Torres: Think what you had thought?

Cláudia: No, nothing like that, you don’t get it. I said: think about what I thought. It makes a huge difference. I didn’t want the reader to think like me, but to think about what I had thought. Then he’d decide how he should think. (Smiles about herself) Naïveté! (Discouraged) Now I know how things are. I’m been inside and I don’t like what I saw, I don’t like what I see. But the great truth is that I’m not sure I want another life besides this one. It may happen that the world takes a turn.

Torres, however, isn’t a hero. Saramago obviously sympathises with this free-thinker and his anguish of living in an oppressive society. Torres may even be a stand-in for Saramago, who knew the ins and outs of publishing during the dictatorship. But Saramago, like Torres, only had pessimism and sarcasm to show in the face of oppression. Torres may ridicule his co-workers’ fear and subservience, but his position, admirable as it may be, is the position of a bitter man resigned to living in an imperfect and afraid of taking action to change it. Like Saramago once wrote about Giordano Bruno, “We forget too much that men are of easily suffering flesh. From childhood educators talk to us of martyrs, they give us examples of civism and morality at their expense, but they don’t say how painful martyrdom, torture was.” Saramago is sensitive to the fact that there aren’t heroes, just people, heroic sometimes but not exempt from flaws. When Cláudia expresses her admiration for Torres, he replies, “No one deserves to be admired twenty-four hours a day. Our life is a constant resistance to weakness, to neglect, to conformism, and even, sometimes, to the small and great betrayals. And there’s no one who can state that he has never erred. If you make such a point of admiring me, admire me only the times I’m right. By turns.”

With reports of tanks and soldiers in the streets of Lisbon, the director and Valadares are unsure of which course of action to take. They still don’t know the political colour of the revolutionaries. In order not to burn any bridges with the forces that the next day may be ruling the country, they decide to publish the newspaper without any news of the coup. Torres and Cláudia object, but for all their good intentions they don’t have any power inside the newspaper. The stroke of genius in the play is that Saramago shows that the power doesn’t come from the director or the editor in chief either. Always true to his roots in the working class, Saramago brings to the foreground characters that had been mostly in the margins, the workers from the printing machines. Excited with the idea of a leftist revolution, the typographers and linotypists remember the administration how newspapers are really made. “Mr. Director, sir, make an effort to understand, if you can’t any other way. The newspaper is written here, in the Newsroom, but it’s produced in there. We’ve been making newspapers passively, sometimes crying with rage, we’ve transformed shame into lead lines, and we’ve melted the lead lines waiting for the day we’d found new lines. New lines, do you understand? The day has arrived. Today.” Only Saramago. Any other writer would have made the journalist the hero of the piece, but Saramago doesn’t forget that newspapers, for all their lofty idealism, are nothing without someone actually producing them. Without manual workers. The most extraordinary thing is that Saramago was a journalist.

A final observation. José Saramago was often accused of writing universal parables in order to court international audiences. This was in strict opposition to António Lobo Antunes (like ALA once jokingly stated they’ll always be paired up like Tom & Jerry) who stubbornly continues to write about Portugal. Specifically Peter Conrad wrote in The New Yorker that “Saramago’s secular parables, set mostly in unnamed or imaginary countries, easily float off into universality. Lobo Antunes remains obsessively local, worrying over the inherited ailments of Portuguese history and the debilities of its culture.” Conrad’s ignorance is easily forgiven: Saramago has been badly treated regarding translations. Conrad, whom I presume doesn’t read Portuguese, can only get his facts from whatever Saramago books he reads in English. It’s true that the Nobel Laureate adopted a parabolic in the ‘90s, after he exiled himself in the Canary Islands (may that be an answer?). That doesn’t erase the decades’ worth of books he previously wrote concerning the “inherited ailments of Portuguese history and the debilities of its culture.” I think the posts I’ve written this week have made more than clear. But if Conrad wants Saramago at his “obsessively local,” I wish he can one day read A Noite. There are nuances in the text that I doubt could ever mean anything to anyone outside Portugal. When a character in the newsroom turns on a radio and suddenly Paulo de Carvalho’s “EDepois do Adeus” (Portugal’s entry for the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest) is heard, that will mean absolutely nothing to a non-Portuguese. Nor will Zeca Afonso’s “Grândola, Vila Morena,” played at the end of the first act. I try to imagine this play being performed in Broadway, and it just seems ridiculous. The dark room, the audience, and all of a sudden these songs burst in. I presume at this point most viewers would not confusedly and wonder what’s going on. But I doubt any Portuguese can hear these songs without a chill of recognition. The first song was played by workers of a radio, in tandem with the revolutionaries, to alert the forces to be ready to leave the headquarters at any moment. The second one was the signal for the operation to begin and that there was no turning back. They’re full of meaning and sentimental affinities to the average Portuguese citizen, symbols of hope and freedom. Peter Conrad, who seems to revel in local colour, probably wouldn’t give two shits if he casually listened to these quaint songs in a foreign language. Local colour after all depends on being able to recognize both the local and its colours.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Democracy has pluralized the lie: Political Saramago

“To the stupefaction of a few listening to me, I have said here and there that I’m less and less interested in talking about literature. First of all, because my speaking about literature doesn’t add to it any more benefit than the one, debatable and doubtable, the books I have been writing would have given it, and, secondly, because literary speeches (the ones literature makes and the ones made about it) seem to me more like a chorus of angels hovering in the heights, with a great ruffle of wings, moans of harps and noise of trumpets. Life, that, is where it usually is, down there, perplexed, anguished, murmuring protests, ruminating rages, sometimes shouting indignations, nameless humiliations, infinite spites.” José Saramago wrote this in 1997, during a stay in Chiapas, Mexico, where he met members of the Zapatista Movement, which defends the land rights of indigenous people. The more I read about Saramago, the more I discover that for most of his writing life he was a man deeply committed to the problems of his time. Politics fascinated Saramago, who was an acute observer and polemic commentator. What he thought of regimes and presidents, of history and its falsifications, of capitalism and its discontents, of the left and its failures, can be found a bit everywhere in his books, even his fiction. For Saramago there wasn’t a separation between man and writer, for him the writer in the modern era had the obligation of being a world citizen committed to his world and not just his literary work. Saramago wouldn’t want people to condescendingly forgive the errors of the man to rehabilitate the writer: for him being a euro-sceptic against the ‘construction of Europe’ was the only course of action to stave off the destruction of the same, as history is now proving; and supporting an old communist ruler like Castro was hardly less immoral than voting for one Bill Clinton, who ordered the bombing of a Sudanese factory that supplied the country with anti-malaria vaccines, dooming countless innocent people. What’s right and what’s wrong? Saramago had his ideas about it, and his convictions, to which he remained loyal.

With such an intense interest in politics, it’s no surprise that he wrote enough about it to fill a volume with political articles. This volume is called Folhas Políticas (Political Writings, 1999) and collects material from between 1976 and 1998. The majority of the articles deals with the aftermath of the 1974 Carnation Revolution, which restored democracy in Portugal. For a while the revolution created a period of exuberance and optimism, but the hopes and dreams were dashed when the young democracy, to Saramago, seemed to have been born already with all the flaws and defects of the old ones: lies, false promises, compromise, a culture of arrivistes, back-stabbing, thirst for power. The book is, on a second plane, a portrait of the country at the time, but it’s first and foremost a testimony of Saramago’s disenchantment with post-revolutionary Portugal. In 1976 he describes the state of politics like this:

From the top of his podium, the president of the National Assembly doesn’t see the Nation: he sees (when they’re all present) 263 deputies who, by the grace of arithmetic, represent it. The right, the left and the centre are present. No one needs to question (himself about) what the right is doing, no one thinks opportune to investigate if the centre is what it claims, but we all grow restless with the left, with the past, the present and the future of the left.

Portugal after 1974 is a democracy slowly getting on its feet, with a right that is quickly gaining power, much to the concern of Saramago, who sees it infiltrating, fascism back into public and political institutions, and a anodyne and dispersed left destroying itself in internecine wars. A frequent theme to which Saramago returns is the failure to build a socialist state, the betrayal of the values of the revolution, the lies of a Socialist Party that uses socialism as a flag to earn votes without caring about its ideals, and the interference of the USA, worried by another Cuba, in the affairs of the country:

And now sovereignty. Yes, indeed, we’re not Puerto Rico. Aside from a few specific places where it naturally flutters, waves, hovers and casts a shadow, the North American flag – here’s our Portuguese flag, green, red, with the armillary sphere, the castles, and, if tradition is true, full of wounds, that covers us all, even when it doesn’t protect us. However, politics not always has the colours of the flags. And everyone who doesn’t want to close his eyes to what’s obvious or doesn’t allow them to be closed, knows very well that in Portugal there’s a “grey eminence” holding not a few of the threads of Portuguese life, those threads which have been weaving, with hands from Washington and the Duque of Loulé, the main net that has tied up the movements unleashed on the 25th of April and the First of May. That “grey eminence” is ambassador Carlucci, the freest man in Portugal, if power is synonymous with freedom, and if freedom is this giving out orders in Portugal as if he were giving them in Puerto Rico. But the constitution continues to say that we’re a sovereign Republic.

Frank Carlucci served as US ambassador in Portugal between 1974 and 1977; the embassy was located in the Avenida do Duque de Loulé. Carlucci, it has been written, was assigned by President Nixon to Portugal to make sure Portugal would abandon its socialist aspirations. He is rumoured to have helped orchestrate the 25th of November coup of 1975, which effectively broke whatever power the revolutionary left still had and paved the way for Portugal becoming a free market capitalist sociality. “Fascism is also capable of learning lessons, and at this moment, standing before the mirror of recent history, national and international, it reorganizes its face. It won’t come with the name of fascism, but that is its name,” wrote Saramago. Obviously he despised Carlucci.

Although bitter, the new political situation in Portugal allows him to put his sarcastic skills to their maximum effect. On freedom of speech, he observes:

There’s a lot to be said about freedom of speech. In the fascist past, when not venerable but high-ranking elders read our prose, and with a blue pencil and a rubberstamp defaced the ideas, our great satisfaction happened when if, because of a distraction by the veteran in charge or of his diminished intelligence, the message got through, half between the lines, half between the space of the letters, so many times later awakening furies in the hierarchy. Then we had the innocence to believe that, on arriving the day the gag fell, the rediscovered force of truth would be enough to take away from future masters the temptation of abusing power, and, better yet, would warn them about its simple use. Today we know a lot. We’ve learned, for instance, that bourgeois democracy is the most skilful way of emptying, in practice, the freedom of press: it maintains its appearance and annuls its effects.

He further elaborates on the difference between fascism and democracy:

Portuguese fascism had a quality: it was monotonous, not imaginative at all, very poorly skilled. It stated one thing alone, stated it infinitely, and stood waiting for people to believe in it. When resistance seemed excessive, it killed or arrested; when voices disagreed, it used the scissor and cut off the excesses. It was, then, stupid, and its stupidity our best quality.
   Now we live in a democracy. Democracy is, by definition, intelligent, very much alive, erudite, civilised, cosmopolitan, and above all westerner. Democracy is this civic pleasure of having elections for everything: the president goes for us, the government is for us, the parliament prays for us. Democracy is happiness at last achieved, paradise on Earth, the confraternization of classes, the kiss on the face. Of democracy one can say it doesn’t lie, since numbers, we all learn, don’t lie. But democracy, the one that doesn’t lie, knows how to tell lies, knows how to weave them and defend them. I’d say that’s one of its great skills: democracy has pluralized the lie. Out of a birth defect? No, poor thing. Out of servitude, compromise and weakness of character of those who could die (perhaps) for it (or emigrate), but can’t manage that act (far more complicated after all) of living for it. Or of making it truly and actually alive.

Saramago oscillates between praising the revolution and lamenting its betrayal. The best thing to come out of the revolution, writes Saramago, was that the “Portuguese came to love themselves, and that was the greatest conquest of April.” He refers to the fact that his countrymen are often melancholy, negative, down-beaten people, a spiritual ailment that the revolution healed for a while. But at the same time he sees the revolution as a means for a new class of rulers to replace the old order. “We’ve also learned a painful truth: that many of the men who were the hope of the people during the time of fascism weren’t any good after all. That was the great Portuguese defeat.”

Besides a self-serving political class that doesn’t give a damn about the people, and a free but silent press, Saramago has many other bête-noires: the state of culture in Portugal (“intellectually we continue to feed ourselves with French milk, the ‘new philosophers from France are the new pretty boys of the Portuguese intelligentsia. It’s fate.”), the difficulty of being a writer in a country that doesn’t invest in literature, the social injustices, and emigration, always emigration, he never forgets the thousands of men and women who leave their country because they can’t find work in it. This prompts to write, when the Portuguese president decides to grant amnesty to Américo Tomás, the last president of fascist Portugal, living in exile in Brazil:

Terribly irony this, nobly being a diaspora and not being able to return because there isn’t enough bread in Portugal, while from plentiful exile some can return by decision and tactical invitation of the president of the Republic. Of a president of the Republic stern in questions of guilt, tortures, and other moral and political judgments, and now benevolent to the point that he’s content with Tomás having nothing bad about him in the records of the Commission to the Extinction of the PIDE-DGS…

The PIDE-DGS was the political police of the dictatorship. Sometimes Saramago expresses his indignation in hilarious ways:

Perhaps it’s not useless to remember the reader that this god, for me, is nothing but an interesting fictional character, and it’s only as such that I call upon him so frequently or allow him to settle himself in my writings. Honestly, I can’t believe a god has created this. But I must confess that some times, throughout my life, I’ve regretted the lack of his real presence and his effective intervention. Not of that compassionate, lovely and share-the-blame god that Jesus Christ inaugurated and that the church’s most hypocrite sentimentalisms have prolonged to our times, but in the figure of indignation and rebellion, since it’s lost in ourselves, if we ever had it in the most necessary and just measure. Incapable of feeling indignant and rebelling, at least we’d always have a god to force us to stare at truth and answer for our offenses, not to him, but to the idea of mankind which, with better or worst results, has fed philosophies and religions.

Perhaps the most striking passage in the book was his interpretation of the French Revolution:

Deep down, these things are easy to understand. When in 1789 France made its bourgeois revolution, for the sole benefit of a bourgeoisie that couldn’t develop itself in the economical and political system of the time, the people believed that that also concerned them and threw down the Bastille. Some two hundred years later (and in spite of 1830, 1848, 1871, 1936, 1968), France is governed by the financial oligarchy that the revolution of 1789 prepared: to the French people it was ordered that they went about Europe killing and being killed in order to increase the freedom of the powerful, installed upon the ultimate equality of the dead and upon the difficult fraternity of the exploited.

Tomorrow, his plays.

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Saramago and newspapers: Part II

I have no story to tell. I feel tired of stories as if suddenly I had discovered that all were told the day man was capable of uttering the first word, if a first word truly existed, if words aren’t all of them, each one and in every moment, the first word. Then stories will be needed again, then we’ll have to admit that none has yet been told.

In 1973 a second book collecting José Saramago’s crónicas came out, titled A Bagagem do Viajante (The Traveller’s Baggage). This book contains articles he wrote in 1969 and 1971-1972. It’s not too different in tone and topics from the previous one, but I found it slightly weaker. The book, however, opens with a very strong article, a concise history of his family dating back to three generations:

   For my part, I’m not bothered knowing that beyond the third generation total darkness reigns. It’s as if my grandparents had been born from a spontaneous birth into a fully formed world, about which they had no responsibility: good and evil were foreign things which they had to take into their innocent hands. I like to think like that, especially when I evoke my maternal great-grandfather, whom I never met, arrived from North Africa, about whom many stories were told. They described him as a tall man, very slim and dark, a stone face, where a smile, for being so rare, was a festivity. They told me he killed a man in suspicious circumstances, in cold blood, like someone pulling out a plant. And they also told me that the victim was right: but he didn’t have a rifle.
   In spite of so thick a stain in the family blood, I like to think about this man, who came from far, from mysteriously far, from an Africa of Arab clothes and sand, from cold and burning mountains, shepherd maybe, perhaps a marauder – and who went there to get into the old agricultural science, which he quickly abandoned in order to guard lands, a rifle under his arm, walking in an elastic and balanced step, tireless.

I had read of this fabled Berber ancestor in a biography, but reading the author’s actual words is far more fascinating. He also remembers his grandparents in the same article:

Closer to me (so close I extend my hand and touch its carnal memory, the dry face and the grown beard, the slim shoulders that have repeated themselves in me), that grandfather who guarded pigs, about whose parents nothing was known, abandoned at a state orphanage, a secretive man all his life, of minimal sentences, also slim and tall like a beam. This man had the whole village’s ire against him, because he came from outside, because he was the son of grass, and, notwithstanding, my grandmother fell in love with him, the most beautiful girl of her time. That’s why my grandfather had to spend his wedding night seated by the house’s door, outside, a stick coated with iron on his knees, waiting for the jealous rivals who had sworn to stone his roof. No one showed up after all, and the moon travelled all night through the sky, while my grandmother, her eyes open, waited for her husband. And it was already clear dawn when both hugged each other.

Curiously, when it comes to his parents, he merely describes them from a photograph he has, as if he had no memories of them worth sharing, as if they were more distant to him than the great-grandfather he never knew but admired. In a separate article he describes his trip, epic to his twelve-year-old spirit, with his uncle to the Santarém fair, to sell piglets. For me those two articles are the best of the book. From reading them one feels convinced that these childhood days were the happiest days of his life. Another interesting article about his childhood was about the books he had in his parents’ house in Lisbon: only a novel by 19th century French writer Emile Richebourg and a Portuguese-French conversation guide. Because Saramago was a great dog lover, I also found curious an article about his childhood fear of dogs.

But let’s move away from his childhood. Saramago is an adult and he’s living under a dictatorship, which, if it constrains his writings, at least never leaves him without topics to write about. For instance, I loved his short observation about truth:

Contrary to what the naïve claim (we all are a bit once in a while), it’s not enough to say the truth. It won’t do much good when dealing with people if it isn’t credible, and perhaps that should even be its first quality. The truth is only half the way, the other half is called credibility. That’s why some lies pass themselves off as truths, and some truths are seen as lies.

I also liked his article on suicide, mainly for the imaginative way he used to circumvent censorship. Suicide officially didn’t exist in fascist Portugal, the word suicide couldn’t even be printed, so this is the way Saramago found to discuss the topic:

   The pistol, that morning, went out in such a state of irritation that, on closing the door, it let the clip fall on the ground. The bullets fell everywhere on the floor, and if the pistol was furious already, imagine how it was when it finished recharging itself. In order to make matters worse, the elevator didn’t work, which, for a gun like this, was the last straw. The pistol’s anatomy makes climbing down stairs difficult. It’s forced to slide sideways, and, no matter how careful it is, it always ends up scratching the barrel. It is left, obviously, with a dishevelled look.
   The man lived in the same building, I believe in the same apartment. The neighbours had noticed in him a certain worry, a melancholy, a distracted way of saying hello, like someone thinking about another world or talking to himself. It didn’t cross anyone’s mind, however, that there were troubles between the man and the gun, that they were sour at each other, and that’s why it was such a surprise, not just in the building but in the whole street and neighbourhood.

The day comes when the pistol kills the man with two shots. “I know, I know, reader, that the story is absurd, that pistols don’t climb stairs down (or up), and that, no matter how wicked they may be, they don’t shoot point blank men going up (and down). But be assured that I haven’t been amusing myself at your expense. What I reported is just one of the thousand possible versions of the news I read a while ago in a Lisbon newspaper, according to which ‘a man had been shot, in the staircase of his residence, by two shots of his own pistol.’ And he died of that.”

That censorship exists is already evil, but he adds another reason why censoring a suicide is even more immoral. “There’s still the irony of stealing the meaning from a gesture, a decision, this stealing death from a man whose life had been already stolen (how? by whom?) before that meeting between the hand and the gun.”

Regarding Portugal being considered the world champion of fireworks, Saramago ironically imagines what else they could be world champions of: “For instance I wouldn’t be too surprised if tomorrow I discovered that we’re also the world champions of emigration. In fact, if we already are, as I suspect, I don’t understand why we don’t take from that title the natural and just satisfactions, the international applause and recognition for our firm contribution to the prosperity of peoples.” During the dictatorship, hundreds of thousands of Portuguese emigrated, to France, Brazil, Germany, the USA.

Another article I liked was about a brief biography of Giordano Bruno he reads in a dictionary. “The dictionary only says he was burned, it doesn’t say he screamed. Why, what dictionary is this that doesn’t inform us? What do I want a biography of Giordano Bruno for that doesn’t speak of the screams he gave, there, in Rome, in a square or in a patio, with people around, some fanning the flames, others watching, others who serenely wrote the execution papers?” And he adds: “We forget too much that men are of easily suffering flesh. From childhood educators talk to us of martyrs, they give us examples of civism and morality at their expense, but they don’t say how painful martyrdom, torture was.”

Someone informs him that a former chief he had is now attached to a metallic tube keeping him alive. This man hated him and Saramago detested him in return; he describes him as one of the subservient lackeys to the fascist regime, always watching his workers for subversive thoughts. Saramago imagines someone disconnecting the machine and the satisfaction of seeing him dead. “It wasn’t I who disconnected the machine. I let imagination run like this because I needed to kill this man in my memory. It’s over. Only the machine is alive, not him.”

He writes of Roberto Rossellini’s Il Generale della Rovere with admiration, once again surprising me about his film states. He also describes an idea for a children’s book (he finally published it in 2001), and even fables and allegories, which are the best way of getting round the censorship (I once visited an exhibition of his life and work and I managed to see some of the originals all crossed out in blue by the censor’s pencil. It was a sobering experience). He writes too of his contempt for Christmas, a time when everyone is everyone else’s brother, for a single day, before the daily slaughter resumes. He laments how much of Portuguese entertainment has an anti-intellectual bias. “Well, if you permit me, I’d like to express here a wish: that the day arrives in this country when all its citizens are intellectuals, the day when the continuous exercise of intelligence is not a privilege of the few but the natural realization of everyone.”

Finally, the final articles form a group thematically linked by his travels in Italy, his visits to its museums and cathedrals, his going to see the works of the Old Masters. I always asked myself if H., the painter from Manual of Painting and Calligraphy, who reminisces about his trip to Italy, was based on actual experience from Saramago’s life, and now I know.